Three tips for speeding up your Mac

Three tips for speeding up your Mac

By repairing disk permissions, running maintenance scripts, and buying more RAM, you can dramatically increase the performance of your Mac, whether it’s an old iBook or a snazzy new Macbook Pro.

Read the rest of the entry to learn how.

Disk permission trouble

Does your Mac take a lot longer to boot than it did when you were first lifting it out of the designer packaging? One very common reason why is that problems have cropped up in the disk permissions.

People rarely fix this, because it is a little bit tricky. That said, it’s not something you cannot do in ten minutes with these instructions. First off, you cannot repair the permissions on the disk that you are running Mac OS off of. What you need to do is get either: (a) any Mac OS X installation disc or (b) system recovery discs that accompanied your computer.

Next, you need to reboot, using the disc instead of your hard drive. For most Macs, you do this by putting the disc in, rebooting, and then tapping or holding either ‘c’ or ‘option-c’ during the period before the login window appears. For instructions specific to your machine, check the manual.

Once the computer has booted from the disc, you will see the Mac OS X installer. Obviously, you don’t want to install OS X over top of a perfectly good copy. Instead, just select a language for the menus (English, since you are reading this) and then select the utilities menu from the top of the screen. From the list, choose Disk Utility. This is the same program as the one that lives in your Applications/Utilities folder, by default.

Once inside, just select your hard drive and click “Repair Disk Permissions.” Let that run, then click “Repair Disk.” Any problems that have cropped up with the structure of your filesystem will be repaired. Once done, quit the program and restart your computer, making sure not to hit the keys that will make it boot from the disc again.

Maintenance scripts

Mac OS X is built on Unix: an operating system originally designed for big, powerful computers that run all the time. Especially for those of you using laptops, this causes a small problem. There are three maintenance scripts – daily, weekly, and monthly – that run automatically late at night, provided your computer is turned on at the right time. If it is asleep or off, they will never run. To check when the scripts last ran, you can open a Terminal window and use the following command:

ls -al /var/log/*.out

It will output the last usage time for the daily, monthly, and weekly scripts.

There are two ways you can get around this. The first option is to run the scripts manually. To do so, open a Terminal window and type:

sudo periodic daily weekly monthly

The sudo command (short for superuser do, and pronounced soo-doo) tells the system to run the command as if you are a superuser. As such, it will ask you for your administrator password (probably the same as your user account password).

The easier way: get the free MacJanitor utility and run it every once in a while. Because running the scripts requires administrator access, the MacJanitor program will still ask for that password.

RAM hunger

While upgrading your RAM isn’t free, it is definitely the most cost effective thing you can do to bolster the performance of your Mac. If you’re like me, you are generally running an email program, a web browser, a text editor, and instant message client, and a music player at any particular time. Once your computer reaches the limit of how much it can handle with physical RAM, it starts using your hard drive like RAM (virtual memory). This is bad for two reasons: (a) your hard drive is much, much slower than RAM at dealing with data and (b) the RAM-like hard drive activity gets in the way of other programs using the drive efficiently.

I would say that running a recent Mac with less than one gigabyte of RAM is probably unwise. I doubt the price of the RAM is less than the ongoing price of frustration. That said, if you never run RAM-hogging programs like Photoshop or iTunes, you may be just fine with what you have. The Activity Monitor program in Applications/Utilities can give you a sense of how much RAM, if any, you have free at any particular time. This can also be done using the ‘top’ command in the Terminal.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

7 thoughts on “Three tips for speeding up your Mac”

  1. Two other tips that hold for other operating systems also:

    1) Junk old preference files and unused fonts
    2) Remove applications you never use. How many Mac users ever touch Garage Band, for instance?

  2. You might want to mention that extra RAM is even more necessary on newer, sub-pro Macintoshes like the Macbook because they use shared video RAM instead of having dedicated VRAM – adding a gig of RAM to my Macbook almost tripled the speed of application launches, application switches and the snaopiness of the Finder in general.

    Also, you don’t need to restart from a system disc to fix disc permissions, you can do it from the copy of Disc Utility that lives in your Utilities folder – you only need to reboot if you’re going to repair the file hierarchy, not the permissions.

  3. Good writeup, you might want to mention looking at activity monitor for the rate of pagein/outs happening and the ratio of active:inactive/free memory. Also under maintenence scripts you mention the admin pass for sudo, it slight nitpicking but it’s your account password. Of course, the user has to be named as an administrator

  4. In Tiger, at least, you can repair permissions on the startup disk whilst booted from it, simply by running Disk Utility. However you cannot Repair Disk on it, for which you do need to boot from another volume. Good writeup, though!

  5. PS. If you want proof of just how geeky the folks at Apple are, try entering this in a Terminal window:

    cat /usr/share/calendar/calendar.history | grep “LOTR”

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